Call it a prime dilemma. Beef that grades Prime for its abundant flavor-imparting and tenderizing marbling has always been the beef industry’s premier product — "the Cadillac," in the words of Randy Irion, director of channel marketing for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — yet at the same time it’s an anomaly, even "a mistake," as one beef packer has described it. And while Prime beef offers the kind of eating experience the industry wants all beef lovers to have so that they buy more beef, the industry can’t promote Prime to the exclusion of the other major grades, Choice and Select.

The industry’s dilemma over Prime is now highlighted by a rare increase in the amount of Prime being sold at retail. A tightened export market coupled with a fall-off in purchases by white-tablecloth steakhouses, both caused by the global recession, has forced more Prime beef into supermarkets and even discount box stores. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported Prime beef was available at Costco stores for as little as $8.99 a pound. The typical Prime price point has often been double that or even higher.

"Prime has always been a small percentage of the overall beef market," Irion told Estimates vary, but Irion says the usual measure is two percent or less. He points out that it’s not just the reduced demand from the export and steakhouse markets that have made more Prime available. "A little bit more beef is grading Prime now than has been the case in the past, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One, we’re feeding a little longer and a little more on grass now, and that’s because some areas that have suffered drought for the past few years have beautiful pasture right now," he said. "And second, I think we’re seeing the results of long-term improvements in genetics." He noted that more beef is grading Choice and Select now, too.

Still, there’s a bit of a wild-card factor. Irion likens a steer that grades Prime to the person in a family who lives to be 100 years old. "They may have eaten just a little better, they may not have smoked or had other unhealthy habits, or they may have just been a little bit lucky. It’s hard to say. It’s the same thing with Prime," he said. "We still can’t really say exactly why one animal grades Prime and another that was produced the same way grades Choice."

He calls Prime meat the beef industry’s "reserve" product, in the way reserve wines are often the best made by a winery. Yet the check-off program for beef promotion, which draws its funding from all beef producers, "can’t really promote Prime exclusively," commented Irion. Doing so would take away from promotions from far more abundant Choice and Select, and there’s always the danger that a consumer expects a Prime eating experience from beef that graded Select — "Not that there’s anything wrong with Select," Irion hastened to add. "It’s wonderful beef. It just doesn’t have the marbling that Prime has."